On Question Time on Thursday Nicky Morgan sought to justify the forced conversion of schools to becoming academies with the claim that “academisation does raise standards”. She made two specific claims:
It is true that there are over 1 million extra pupils in good or outstanding schools. My calculation put the figure at 1.27 million in September. However this has little to do with the academy programme.
Of that 1.27 million, 997,000 were in primary schools where few schools are academies. Indeed the number of pupils that were in sponsored academies that were Good or Outstanding were just 67,000. So of the million extra pupils in Good or Outstanding primaries just 7%, one in fourteen, were due to academies. (Those in converter academies would have already been Good or Outstanding as that was the requirement for conversion.)
The 2014 Ofsted annual report pointed out that in the secondary sector (where most schools are academies) the same proportion were in Good or Outstanding schools as the previous year. There had been no increase. It also noted that over the previous two years, as the academy process had gone through, the number of children in “inadequate” secondaries had increased by 70% (from 100,000 to 170,000).
It was in the primary sector (where few schools are academies), that “190,000 more pupils are attending good or outstanding primary schools than last year.” (Ofsted annual report 2014 p8)
This sounds impressive. But dissect it and you will see the knowing deceit at the heart of the governments’ claims. By switching the different comparisons made, it could equally be said that maintained schools have better GCSE results than sponsored academies and increase their results at a faster rate than sponsored academies.
Of course converter academies have stronger absolute GCSE results. Only Good or Outstanding schools were allowed to become converter academies and they were Good or Outstanding because they had better results.
And similarly, of course sponsored academies increased their results faster than maintained schools overall. Look at the chart below. This groups primary schools by their previous year 2014 results. The group on the left, those schools that started with low 2014 results increased these results at a much faster rate than those with better initial results. Indeed those with the highest previous year results actually saw their results, on average, fall.
This has been the case every year, for primary and secondary, since the DfE started publishing detailed school data in 2011. Schools with low previous results see much bigger increases. Any group with a lot of schools with low previous results, such as sponsored academies, will be likely to increase their results at a faster rate.
The questions is whether a school will perform better if it stays a local authority maintained schools or becomes an academy. To answer that schools must be compared to similar schools, those with similar results in the previous year. Look again at the graph. Each of these five comparisons compares similar primary schools. In each case it is the non-academy whose results improve at a faster rate.
The DfE has a strong statistical capability. It is fully aware of these facts. Indeed back in 2013 it produced a report which compared sponsored academies and maintained schools, claiming that sponsored academies came out better (though it accepted in the High Court in 2014 that the difference was "marginal"). At that time schools were allowed to include "GCSE equivalents", which sponsored academies made extensive use of.
It is since the removal of GCSE equivalents in 2014 that it has become clear that maintained secondaries improve their results faster than sponsored academies. The DfE has not published any comparison of sponsored academies with similar non-academies since that change.
At the committee stage of the Education Bill in July 2014 the following discussion took place (summarised):
Nick Gibb: "Sponsored academies grades rose, over 4 years, by 6.4% pts compared with 1% for maintained schools. "
Kevin Brennan: "Is he comparing that improvement with figures for schools in similar circumstances?"
Nick Gibb: "Sponsored academies have improved their grades by about 6.4% compared with all LA schools."
Nick Gibb is an intelligent minister. He knew what question he was being asked and was unable to produce any comparison with similar schools, falling back instead on the comparison with all schools.
Government education ministers are fully aware that the valid comparison is between schools with similar results. Does a school on 35%, or 40% or 45%, improve its results faster if it stays as a maintained school or if it becomes a sponsored academy? That is the key question. The fact it might improve faster than a school already on 80% is irrelevant.
What Nicky Morgan showed on Newsnight, by using this deceit, was that she has no actual evidence to justify the claim that forcing schools to become academies will improve results. Instead there is the real danger that the primary sector will see the same increase in the number of children in "inadequate" that Ofsted found to have happened in the secondary sector.